In the interests of transparency, I must preface this review by saying that one of the principals of the recently formed Network Acoustics is a friend of mine called Richard Trussell, and that I have been in regular contact with him while he has taken the long road from ‘good idea’ to ‘finished product’. However, I have tried not to let that influence my thinking in preparing this review, which is based entirely on my own listening experience and the opinions that I have formed.
I am one of those old-school people who much prefers to use physical media for music replay. I have a pretty decent library of vinyl records, the oldest of which I bought as long ago as 1965. In the 1980s I got the CD bug and within a few years my CD library had grown much bigger than my record library. I returned to the vinyl fold in the 1990s but continued to buy CDs. In recent years, the world of music streaming has of course changed everything, and has now become the preferred music delivery method for millions of consumers, who are more than happy not to clutter their homes with physical media. The convenience is hard to ignore, and the vast range of music which can be accessed from the comfort of the listening chair is mind boggling. However, as hard as I have tried, I have always reverted to spinning discs for ‘serious’ listening, often using one of the music streaming services to listen to new releases before parting with my cash to acquire them on vinyl or indeed, from time to time, compact disc. Something in the way streamed music sounded just didn’t quite work for me.
About a year ago my friend Richard called me and said that he had something he wanted me to hear, and could he bring it over to see how it worked in my system. When he arrived he was holding a small black box, from one side of which dangled a length of Ethernet cable, the other side housed an Ethernet input socket. We first listened to Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue from Blood On The Tracks, streaming in hi-res from Qobuz into my Lyngdorf TDAI 3400 Integrated amplifier/streamer. It sounded pretty good, but for me lacked the immediacy of the same track when played on vinyl. Richard then walked over to the system and removed my very decent Ethernet cable from the Lyngdorf and plugged it into his little black box. He then inserted the tethered cable from his box into the amplifier. We listened again to Mr Dylan, and I had one of those rare ‘good grief’ moments. The voice was projected into the room and the soundstage gained width and height, with each instruments contribution to the piece being much easier to hear. It was obvious that whatever lurked within the small box was cleaning up the sound to a level that I had not previously heard from a streamed signal. Clearly, Richard was on to something.
In the twelve months that have elapsed since then the project has progressed dramatically. Richard has teamed up with Rob Osborn, who has been successfully designing and building digital cables for some time. Together they have formed Network Acoustics and brought their two skill sets together to create a compelling offer for the audio world.
Richard recently visited me with final versions of the ENO Ag, which is the silver cabled and more expensive version (there is less expensive copper-cabled variant available, the ENO cu), along with the matching Network Acoustics streaming cable and we spent a few happy hours in comparative listening tests. We started by listening to music streamed from my Naim UnitiServe, which is connected to a DLink network switch with a well-respected Ethernet cable. From that switch to the matching one behind the hi-fi rack there is a 5m length of Ethernet cable, and from that switch to the Lyngdorf a cable from a well established manufacturer. We played One of These Days from Pink Floyd’s Meddlefollowed by something completely different, JS Bach’s Coffee Cantata, recorded digitally for Decca’s L’Oiseau Lyre label by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy Of Ancient Music, and featuring the wonderful Emma Kirkby (soprano), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor) and David Thomas (bass). It was recorded in St Barnabas Church, London in September 1986.
Both tracks sounded good to me, with plenty of bite to Roger Waters’ bass and the voices on the Bach piece sounding clear and the orchestra sounding good. We then plugged in the ENO Ag with its tethered, Telegartner connector terminated lead in the Lyngdorf’s Ethernet port and my cable plugged into the ENO. Playing the same two tracks I was immediately struck by the increase in height, width and depth of the soundstage, and in the Bach, by the increased amount of detail, with Hogwood’s harpsichord continuo easier to hear in the mix. On the Pink Floyd track the brief (and rather spooky) vocal line ‘One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces was much easier to hear’.
The next testing stage was to switch my Ethernet cable for the Network Acoustics Streaming cable. This also terminated with very substantial Telegartner plugs and sheathed in a woven black material with directionality indicated by arrows on the heat-shrink between the cables and the plugs. It is also very flexible which is always a bonus for those who wrestle with cables that are often intransigently stiff and difficult to dress. With that change made we went back to our two test tracks, starting with the Bach. Oh my goodness. Suddenly, instead of listening to a recording I felt that I was sitting in St Barnabas, listening to a live performance. The sense of the venue acoustic was incredible, as was the realism of the sound. This was a genuinely astonishing experience – I am lucky enough to hear a lot of great hi-fi, but rarely have I been as mesmerised as I was by this experience. The Pink Floyd track was also treated to added height, width and depth to the soundstage. Hearing each strand in the mix was very easy and yet the integrity of the piece was never compromised.
As I said in my introduction I have always preferred to use physical media for serious listening because I have always felt that streamed music , while convenient, has not engaged my senses in the way that, say, a favourite album on vinyl has done. This Network Acoustics package has made me feel that I could happily live with streaming as my primary source. It has pulled off the amazing feat of giving me the same emotional connection to the music that I get from vinyl and to a slightly lesser extent, CD and SACD too, which is not something which I thought I would ever say. Will I ditch my turntable etc now? No, of course not, but I do think that with what I now know can be achieved with streaming I shall not feel the need to buy too many more records.
Network Acoustics are offering the ENO box and streaming cable as a package, or as separate products. They have started to recruit UK dealers but are also selling direct from their website with a 30 day return policy if you are not happy with your purchase. My advice is to buy the package – you’ll save money of course but much more importantly you will hear just what that streaming device you have bought can really deliver.